I am honored to have the opportunity to present Selecting Vertical Markets in a Digital World at the Illinois CPA Society's 2014 Midwest Accounting and Finance Showcase at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center on Thursday, August 28th. This is such a timely topic in today's digital world, and one I have been especially focused on over the last couple years.
The key is to be specific in your specialty to reach the right audience. Depending on the industry you choose you may need to narrow your focus even further. This is why Maribel Torres-Pinero, CPA and I are teaching a class specifically on the Not for Profit segment to take a deep dive into the needs and specifics of this popular niche at AICPA & CPA.com's Digital CPA Conference. The reporting requirements and the level of hand holding they need can vary greatly from a charitable organization to a municipality. Think about the how the chosen industry will benefit most from your service.
If you haven't begun analyzing the industries that you can serve not just well, but with exceptional levels of expertise, I encourage you to take advantage of sessions like what Illinois CPA Society is offering, and start leveraging the specialized skills and knowledge in your office. What questions do you have about focusing on a vertical?
I was recently reviewing my presentation that was made to internal management three years ago when we started down the road of the Digital CPA practice. Our original goal of this presentation was to pick a standard software platform to utilize in our Outsourcing practice – highlighted were the following points:
Software as a Service (SaaS) – 24/7 access to real time data, no capital costs, faster implementation
Client Information Management – The system would provide real time visibility, access to client data from a single centralized location and paperless processing of bills and electronic payments
Modular Scalability – Add functionality, users and reports as needed
Marketing Opportunity – Accounting firms were not in this space at the time
CPA.com, technology subsidiary of the AICPA, Approved – Intacct and Bill.com were named preferred financial applications
Outsourcing Service Standardization – Standard client setups, reporting and processes
Value Pricing - Standardization of services allows a more uniform approach to the client
What I realize now is that many of these were external opportunities for the firm and the clients that we were servicing – these have helped us to offer better client experiences - we give clients what they need and not try to teach them accounting – this also allows a deeper relationship with the clients because we are working with them in real-time.
Fesnak Outsourcing has now seen the internal opportunities and benefits as well. When we were working with multiple software systems:
we were often times maintaining various internal and external licenses and versions,
reorienting ourselves each time we transitioned to a new client
installing software when a new staff was working on a client.
Now that we have one platform:
staff are able to easily transition from one client to the next,
train incoming staff on our standard processes
work at a higher level.
We have also found that with one platform the staff have a deeper knowledge of this system and are being proactive with new processes and procedures to increase efficiencies. Finally, we have cleaner desks and emptier file cabinets, no more posted paper checks that need to be filed, paper payables that need to be processed or check stock and envelopes for each of our clients.
We encouraged our staff to be part of the process of moving to a digital practice; they were the best voice when it came to processes, procedures and efficiencies. They continue to help us to realize the internal opportunities as we are working on the external opportunities. Going deeper into these types of topics is what I enjoy doing at the CPA.com Client Accounting Services Workshops. Hope to see some of you at the August Workshop in New York at the CPA.com and AICPA Headquarters.
Nicole M. Ksiazek, CPA is Senior Manager at Fesnak & Associates, LLP. Nicole is member of the Advisory Board for the CPA.com and AICPA Digital CPA Conference.
It is incumbent upon CPAs to make sure they can support their clients in a manner consistent with the way their clients operate. Today, that means being able to communicate and collaborate digitally. We are way beyond email, texting, having a website, and possibly a client portal, even though that appears to be what most CPAs consider being technology savvy.
The Challenge: For over a decade, the accounting industry has been the beneficiary of some very talented, visionary technology companies that have developed internet-based “Cloud” accounting and various related applications. Amazingly, very few public accounting firms have actually taken advantage of these tools to enhance their service offerings and provide more value to their clients. Unfortunately, many other professionals are taking advantage of these same tools and leveraging their technical skills to get in the door of CPA clients. Having our clients approached by other professionals is never good, but that is exactly what is happening as IT consultants and management consultants pitch value-added consultative services that the Digital CPA is trying to promote. So what to do about it?
The Strategy: First and foremost, determine if you or your firm is going to offer these services or if you will remain purely compliance focused. Assuming the decision is to compete by offering value-added services and become a truly Digital CPA, the next decision is to evaluate your staff and create a team to hammer out the what and how. This team should include at least one member from senior management to make sure the rest of the firm understands the level of commitment being put forth. There are numerous things to evaluate when defining the “what and how” of going to market with Digital CPA services. I would recommend using the following outline to help make those decisions:
Develop a realistic budget for training, applications, marketing. and low margin projects.
What services will you begin offering?
Will you offer management level reporting and dashboards, bill pay services, invoicing services, employee expense management, CRM integration, outsourced CFO services?
What tools/providers will you use?
Will you focus on a particular industry?
Will you focus on a particular business problem?
Do you have the talent to start this or do you need to hire new talent?
How will you price the service?
Can you develop a pricing model not based on charge hours?
Can you develop an ROI model to help price above standard hourly rates?
How will you market consultative services from a “compliance” company?
Can you develop sales tools to help uncover the pain points of your opportunities which should be your value add offerings?
When will you launch the service?
Do you have current clients that would allow you to test your new services on or will you have to try the new services on new clients?
This should help you strategically develop a plan to get you well into becoming a Digital CPA. Don’t worry if you change your plan as you go, your market and talent will naturally move you in the right direction. Best of luck!
Victor Puchi, CPA, CGMA & Partner, Director of Accounting Services. Victor is member of the Advisory Board for the CPA.com and AICPA Digital CPA Conference.
Becoming a digital CPA firm is an immediate benefit to clients; that’s a no-brainer. Clients’ systems become more secure and efficient with fewer touch points. Clients will have real-time access to their data and remote access to data from most digital devices. In addition, they get to see their financials in a dashboard format that is easy to understand. You would think that there would be few if any challenges, right?
Clients enjoy predictability from their service providers. Predictability is a crucial ingredient to the trust equation. Attempting to change the processes and the way they must now think about the information brings instability, even if the client understands the benefits. A usual question is, “Why change a system that is working well at this time?” Timing can be an issue since we usually try to make these changes to coincide with the client’s fiscal year end, but it may not be the most convenient time for the client if they have an important event or vacation planned.
It’s helped that we have gained our clients’ trust and respect from years of working with them. Nevertheless, clients were either willing and excited, willing and hesitant or not willing at all to change their system. Working with those willing and excited clients first gave us the opportunity to test out the systems and to benefit from their patience to work through the inevitable problems. We then moved on to the willing and hesitant clients being a bit more confident of our capacity and knowledge. We are still working on the resistant crowd and remain hopeful they will come to appreciate the benefits for them and become willing to make the investment. Resistance comes from fear that change will be unsettling and may cause new problems they have never had to deal with. We are continuing the conversation with them and continue to address these fears. Setting up demos and training is crucial for clients’ peace of mind. Re-training, setting up YouTube videos and answering questions over and over again, mustering all the patience we have, is also of essence.
An interesting trend has emerged with the clients who have agreed to go digital; clients no longer have our accounting staff’s presence on a regular basis and yet request “someone’s” presence at their office. This has made it easier for us to introduce the advisory services, which requires a different type of conversation with clients and utilizing higher level staff. The firm’s services are moving in the direction that we intended when we started this process.
We learned a new term from Tom Hood, CEO of the Maryland Association of CPAs. “Paving the cow paths” is the phrase he offered after I described our struggle to have clients (and staff) change the processes previously used with the old systems. These old processes are no longer efficient and it is necessary to spend the time creating new processes that capitalize on the efficiency of the new systems. Clients and staff both need to commit the time upfront to creating the new paths.
It’s been slightly over 18 months since I made the decision to become a digital CPA firm. We have taken a big leap into our future. Despite the challenges, it’s the best decision I’ve made for the firm. Ultimately, the key to making sure that clients appreciate the transition to a digital platform is patience and a commitment to cultivating the client relationship based on their trust and respect.
Maribel Torres-Pinero, CPA, CEO & Director of Client Accounting Services at Lumix CPAs and Advisors. Maribel is member of the Advisory Board for the CPA.com and AICPA Digital CPA Conference.
Attending the CPA.com and AICPA’s first Digital CPA Conference at the end of 2012 was a huge “Aha!” moment for me. For years I knew that technology was advancing rapidly and that the processes we were using to service our clients could be replaced with much more efficient workflows. During our internal team meetings we discussed increasing the efficiency of our processing of transactions to allow us to focus on being our clients’ advisors. The Digital CPA Conference provided the context and platforms I thought existed but did not know how to bring together. We jumped in the digital bandwagon and started the process of becoming a digital CPA firm. This was over 18 months ago and even though we’ve come a long way, we have encountered several expected and unexpected challenges along the way.
Our first mistake was not being clear and specific about how these changes would affect each staff member.
Making the decision was never a challenge since I hold the highest level of decision-making in the firm. However, I needed to quickly get the buy in from other leaders in the firm – I need a champion to echo my excitement and sense of urgency. We were off to a good start after attending a two-day workshop that gave us sufficient compelling reasons to move in this direction. It was on the way back from this workshop that we discussed how this new blueprint for servicing our clients would affect staff members and company culture. We recognized this was going to be one of our immediate expected challenges. The unexpected challenge were the blank expressions we faced during our quarterly firm meeting after showing a very detailed power point presentation of the changes we had in mind for the firm.
The Digital CPA model practically eliminates the need for data entry relying mostly on synchronization of data bases. We knew that some of our more junior staff who had been trained in data entry would have difficulties resolving sync errors and creating csv files that could successfully upload into the new systems. It was important to assess each staff member’s strengths and weaknesses, determine whether they would fit into the new model and have continuous conversations with them clarifying our expectations. We identified among our staff several trail blazers who were bold enough to dive into one or several software and teach the rest of us. We set up mentoring sessions to ensure that no one fell behind and made sure the message was consistent to each of them collectively and individually. Most importantly, we maintained our sense of humor when things did not go well and as we stared at the same screen wondering how we can make sense of what we created.
During our transition, our staff suffered from “technology frustration” - that feeling that everything is so different that learning it is simply an added burden. The question was often asked, “why are fixing something that is not broken?” The systems are a tremendous improvement over the previous QuickBooks, Peachtree, Great Plains and MIP we’ve been using. The new reporting capabilities are superior but more complex, and this translates to a steep learning curve, increased time, and frustration. Never mind our unreasonable expectations that this superior, much more robust and capable system still has a few deficiencies! We have to constantly remind ourselves that no matter the shortfalls, we were still way ahead in terms of technology and capabilities we can offer to clients.
One of the biggest lessons that has gotten us through this time is maintaining a culture of innovation and excitement within the firm. Transitions are difficult and overwhelming, particularly when there is no visible light at the end of the tunnel. However, the results are tangible and the growth is undeniable.
Maribel Torres-Pinero, CPA, CEO & Director of Client Accounting Services at Lumix CPAs and Advisors. Maribel is member of the Advisory Board for the CPA.com and AICPA Digital CPA Conference